Plane trees of London

The use of plane trees in London

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Amenity and ornamental uses

The plane tree in England has primarily been used as a large amenity and ornamental tree. In Greater London it is a regular and common component of most larger urban parks and many streets. It is also often used in many other forms of landscaping where a large tree is needed. It is similarly used as an urban parkland and street tree in cities throughout the temperate regions. It is useful in conditions where a tough and adaptable tree is needed, even if its life there is going to be limited.

Plane trees in St. James' Park

Plane trees in St. James' Park

As an ornamental tree it can provide great size and longevity where these are needed. Other useful features include a moderate shade that is sufficient to allow grass or other plants to grow below it, tolerance of pollution, and tolerance of difficult soil conditions. It also tolerates pruning, including bad pruning. For this reason it is planted in places for which it will grow too big, on the basis that as it responds well to pruning, it can be so dealt with in maturity.

Apart from size and longevity, some other attractive characteristics are;

There are some disadvantages as well for an ornamental tree;

Trees are rarely selected for their final shape, since this can take a long time to be fully visible, and does not matter in any case if the tree is likely to be lopped or removed before maturity. But it does matter for parkland trees. It is unfortunate that so many of London's trees are of the clones (such as Pyramidalis) that have turned out to have a poor shape. Some of the newer varieties, including those selected in the US, have not been around long enough for their final shapes to be known.

For further details on growing the tree, see the page on cultivation.

Parkland

The plane has been used in many of London's older parks to form perimeter tree belts. They are also often found as avenues alongside the carriage roads that ran through these early and Victorian parks. Good examples of these plane tree lined carriage roads can be seen on the south and eastern side of Hyde Park (the eastern carriage road is now part of Park Lane), and at Victoria Park in Bow. This concept has been copied in many of London's newer suburban parks. Sometimes, as in Gladstone Park (Dollis Hill), plane trees have been used to form informal avenues along the winding roads that run through the park. Screens and shelterbelts of plane trees on the margins of parkland, playing fields, and other open spaces, are also fairly common, as will be noticed in many longer rail journeys across London.

Cemeteries

Trees Chingford Mount Cemetery

Plane trees shading tombstones at Chingford Mount Cemetery.

Trees have also been used in some cemeteries. At Kensal Green Cemetery, Oriental planes have been used, both for boundary planting and elsewhere. It is possible at this cemetery that they were also planted in formal avenues, but if so, then some aspects of the original design have been lost. Most other cemeteries used fewer planes, though the influence of the cemetery arboretum concept persisted, ensuring that a wide variety of trees would often be planted, and thus often some plane trees. The large City of London Cemetery at Wanstead is notable, as it has substantial areas planted primarily with these trees. But this collection is not especially varied.

London squares and gardens

The squares of central London are another location type where planes have been heavily used, and because of their age, they provide another significant population of mature trees. Some of these squares are private, but the trees are generally large enough and imposing enough to dominate the surrounding streets. Many of the squares were laid out as gardens, and it is unlikely that these trees were planted in the expectation of their present size. However they are now a major component of these squares and gardens and few would be able to consider these squares without these trees to give them structure.

Most private squares are now rather more densely planted with shrubs than the public ones, which shows that the trees do not necessarily detract from other growth. Examples of public gardens with similarly dense plantings of both plane trees and shrubs can be found, such as the gardens by the Embankment near Charing Cross station.

Riverside plantings

Plantings by the Thames are another familiar feature to most Londoners. There are many established plantings by the river, and there are some newer plantings such as those by the South Bank and the Tate Modern Gallery. However, rather more prominent are the trees that line most of the north bank Embankment from the City to Chelsea.

Plane trees are also found in many other riverside settings, including Barnes, Richmond and further upstream. This latter section includes some of the largest specimens in London, at or near Petersham. This is significant, since the tree's preferred growing environment is moist river valleys. Many of the other largest trees are similarly also beside other watercourses, notably the Wandle (such as at Morden Hall Park and Ravensbury Park), and sometimes its smaller tributary streams, such as the one by the Ecology Centre at Carshalton.

Street trees

Residential road lined with pollarded planes showing two years of regrowth.

A residential road lined with
pollarded planes (winter)

The plane is also used as a street tree, especially in roads that were planted through the earlier 20th century, including inner and suburban London. The majority of these trees have been treated since by pollard pruning to control their size. This leaves a rather ungainly looking specimen in winter, but provides a managed dense crown through the summer. Such trees are widespread through Greater London, sometimes mixed with lime trees, which may also be treated similarly. Sometimes, in traffic islands or other situations where their size causes no problems, unpruned trees can be found. In some places, there is an attempt made to keep a more naturalistic shape to the tree by careful pruning. Examples of the latter can be seen along Whitehall, and Charing Cross Road, north of Trafalgar Square.

In many places, these trees have caused building subsidence problems, due to their proximity to houses, so they are not replaced or removed. However, especially where there is more space, there are new trees being planted.

Timber

The timber is called variously lacewood, lacewood plane, plane, buttonwood or sycamore. It has a characteristic attractive lacy appearance which is sought after for some furniture. It is not longlasting out of doors. However, it has moderate strength and hardness, and it is quite suitable for indoor furniture and joinery use. In this use, it is stable and it can take a fine finish and polish.

The timber is neither widely available nor widely used, but a certain amount of wood does enter the timber trade from the widely planted European ornamental tree stock. Some of the available timber is used for veneering. Plane trees are sometimes also grown specifically as a forestry crop for joinery and veneering timber, especially Platanus occidentalis in the USA.

Wood sample

Wood sample - more photos here.

Other uses

The tree can be used as a pleached tree, though this is not common in Britain, where traditionally lime, beech and hornbeam trees were the most commonly used.

The sugary sap has been tapped from the occidental plane and used for human consumption in North America.

A number of medicinal uses are known in folk medicine for the plane trees. These include some medicinal preparations made from the leaves and the bark of the oriental plane. A range of external and internal medicinal uses have been described for preparations made from the bark of the occidental plane.

Dyes have been prepared from the roots and stems of oriental plane in Kashmir.

In recent years the occidental plane has been used as a biomass crop in the United States because of its high rate of growth in good soil conditions.

Prunings from pollarded planes make excellent bean sticks and frameworks for climbing plants. Two and three year old growth is most useful.

References to some of these uses can be found on the Plants for a Future website.


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15-August-2009